Source: Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Critical essay
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[Elliot is a Ph.D. student in history at New York University and a former editor of “New England Puritan Literature” for the Cambridge History of American Literature. In the essay that follows, he explores the character and motivation of the title character in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” concluding that in Bartleby, “Melville created a highly ambiguous symbol that cannot be reduced to a single meaning or interpretation.”]
Almost one hundred and fifty years since it was first published, Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener” remains one of the most elusive short stories in all of American literature. What is the reason for Bartleby's strange behavior in the story? This is the question that plagues the story's narrator, and it has plagued the readers of “Bartleby the Scrivener” as well. While many intriguing hypotheses have been offered over the years, no single interpretation dominates critical opinion or seems to fully explain the author's intention. Indeed, part of “Bartleby's” enduring appeal comes from its well-crafted ambiguity and denial of easy interpretation. Such an enigmatic story by one of America's greatest writers has proved an irresistible challenge to scholars in numerous fields, including literature, history, philosophy, psychology, and religion. These various approaches to “Bartleby” have deepened our understanding of the issues in the story, even if they have not solved the riddle of Bartleby's behavior. Perhaps to understand the story one must first accept that there is no single meaning to the character of Bartleby. This essay will consider Bartleby's actions in light of the possibility that his ultimate meaning is not meant to be understood by the reader.
Let us briefly examine one of the most influential interpretations of “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In a 1953 essay Leo Marx argued that the character of Bartleby symbolically represented Melville himself, who resisted the pressure to write the kind of unoriginal, formulaic fiction that could provide him with a comfortable living. Marx believed that “Bartleby” was Melville's testament to the misunderstood artist who refuses to “copy” popular forms—as Bartleby refused to copy legal documents—and who suffers rejection and alienation from society on account of his independence. It is tempting to interpret the story in this fashion because, undoubtedly, Melville was something of a Bartleby. Throughout his life, Melville felt himself an outcast from society and looked askance at America's self-confident Republic. His innocence was shaken by his father's financial ruin and early death, which led to Melville's years of aimlessness as a common sailor. Even after he obtained an established reputation and a steady income as a writer, Melville remained unfulfilled. He constantly challenged his readers with difficult works that betrayed an unpopular degree of pessimism about the state of humanity. Melville refused to change his message despite the consequences, as he complained to author Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Dollars damn me... What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet... write the other way I cannot.” Or, as Leo Marx would have it, Melville would prefer not.
Like many who have interpreted “Bartleby,”Marx sheds some important light on the story, but he does not explain enough. Unlike Melville's, Bartleby's resistance is entirely passive. Bartleby takes no action and offers no overt criticism of society or even a reason for his actions. Bartleby cannot communicate his ideas or feelings in any form except the inadequate statement, “I prefer not to.” Bartleby's strange unwillingness to articulate his feelings casts serious doubt on the argument that he represents the uncompromising artist. Bartleby is described as eerily “mechanical” and “inhuman.” Unlike Bartleby, Melville never became mentally or socially paralyzed. Moreover, his feelings of pessimism about society never reached the tragic depths that appear to affect Bartleby. The effort it took to create Melville's works of fiction demonstrate that he must have had at least a glimmer of hope that they could somehow make a difference to the world. Bartleby's alienation seems somewhat greater and more universal than Melville's, yet his silence ensures that the meaning of his resistance will remain ambiguous to the end. Considering Melville's ability as a writer, it is fair to say that the difficulties presented by the character of Bartleby are there for a reason. Why did Melville create this inscrutable character? Some clues can be gathered from a recognition of Melville's own philosophical angst and his use of symbolism.
Bartleby functions in the story not as a character but as a symbol. It may be useful to compare Bartleby the symbol to another highly ambiguous creation of Melville's imagination—Moby Dick. Of all of Melville's characters, only the white whale, Moby Dick, presents the same interpretive difficulties as Bartleby and has been construed in as many different ways. In the novel Moby Dick, each of Melville's characters interprets the white whale differently, and its ultimate meaning seems both awesome and unknowable. The inscrutability of the white whale reflects Melville's own skepticism about the inability of human beings to fully comprehend and control the forces in the universe at a time when faith in science and human reason were rarely questioned. Ahab, who accepts no limits on man's ability to know, sums up the white whale's elusive meaning when he explains his hatred of the whale: “How can a prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there is naught beyond. But 'tis enough.... That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be that white whale agent, or be that white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” It is significant that Ahab compares Moby Dick to a wall. Ahab desires to know the ultimate meaning of all things, but he is frustrated because he cannot penetrate beyond the surfaces or the tangible world. For Ahab, existence in this world is but a prison because he cannot know, and sometimes doubts, that any deeper meaning exists. Thus, all that is left to Ahab is to attack and destroy the inscrutable surfaces which he has personified in the white whale.
In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville explores similar philosophical issues in a different kind of setting. In a striking parallel with Ahab, Bartleby is also transfixed by walls, a pervasive symbol in the story. The office is located on Wall Street, and its windows look out onto walls on all sides. Bartleby has a tendency to stare blankly at the wall, lost in what the lawyer calls “a dead-wall reverie,” and his fate is to eventually die in prison, his face turned to the wall. It could be argued that, like Ahab, the walls symbolize Bartleby's sense of imprisonment within the limits of human knowledge, but we can never know this for sure. Like Moby Dick, Bartleby himself is also a kind of wall. To others he presents an inscrutable facade beyond which ultimate meaning is unknown. Bartleby, in fact, assumes the same symbolic function as Moby Dick, and the drama unfolds in the narration of the lawyer, who tries to comprehend him. No grand egotist like Ahab, the lawyer confronts the inscrutable Bartleby from the perspective of a typical genteel American whose comfortable existence has given him no reason for philosophical angst. As Bartleby's behavior causes his ordinary world of routine and unshaken “assumptions” to collapse, the lawyer is forced to confront issues about the human condition from which he had been previously sheltered.
All the reader knows about Bartleby is learned through the point of view of the lawyer. Thus, it may be worth considering that what Bartleby “really means” is not as important as what he means to the lawyer. At first, the lawyer is miffed at Bartleby's refusal to proofread documents, and he attempts to make him aware of the traditional practices and “common usages” of the office. Throughout the story, the lawyer continually attempts to explain Bartleby's behavior within a rational framework. The lawyer supposes in turn that Bartleby does not understand the rules of the office; Bartleby's resistance is just a minor eccentricity that can be controlled like Turkey's and Nipper's; Bartleby ails physically from a poor diet or bad light; and, finally, Bartleby has been deeply affected by a previous job experience. None of his explanations are satisfactory, however. The lawyer himself reacts with growing horror and confusion as the seriousness of the problem becomes clear, especially when considering Bartleby's total solitude. At this point, it becomes evident that Bartleby's behavior has begun to take on deeper symbolic significance for the lawyer. “How can a person exist without communication with others?” he wonders when he realizes that Bartleby neither converses with other people nor reads. “Is it possible to be so utterly alone in the universe?” Bartleby's actions and demeanor suggest to the lawyer, perhaps for the first time, that existence has no meaning or purpose and it is possible that we live in a cold and indifferent universe.
Once the lawyer has contemplated the meaning of Bartleby, he begins to make an effort to dispel the mystery and establish some human connection that will restore confidence in his optimistic view of life. He begins by trying to discover something about Bartleby's past, assuring Bartleby that he “feels friendly” towards him. This fails, but later in the story the lawyer tries again to reach Bartleby when he points out that life offers him choices and questions him as to what he would “prefer” to do with his life. Yet this tack also fails, as Bartleby refuses to differentiate between the “choices” he is offered, saying with indifference that he is not particular. Finally, the lawyer offers to take Bartleby in and care for him. Again, this offer of kindness and human sympathy fails to impress Bartleby, who would rather remain in the doorway. In these scenes a conflict emerges between the lawyer's optimistic and reassuring view of the universe and what he perceives as Bartleby's nihilism. The fact that the lawyer perceives a profound meaninglessness and existential despair in Bartleby's actions may suggest that buried deep within his own optimistic and superficial world view there exists (at least) a lingering doubt.
Many critics have regarded Melville's lawyer as a buffoonish parody of the American middle class. Yet if the philosophical conflict between the lawyer and Bartleby is taken seriously, then one must reconsider whether Melville really views his lawyer with contempt. Melville, as I have argued, never totally succumbed to his pessimism, as Bartleby seems to. Is there something of value, then, in the lawyer's critique of Bartleby? In one of the most significant passages in the story, the lawyer visits Bartleby at the prison. He finds Bartleby standing alone in the prison courtyard, staring intently at the stone wall. The lawyer attempts to tear Bartleby's attention from the wall, stating, “see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.” Without looking, Bartleby responds, “I know where I am.” The contrast between their value systems is made clear: even if it is true that the human condition is a prison, the lawyer will optimistically focus his attention on the sky and the grass, while all Bartleby can think of are the walls that shut him in. Unable to accept what he perceives as Bartleby's point of view, the lawyer eventually decides that Bartleby must have been adversely affected by an experience which forced him to constantly contemplate the hopelessness and sad ironies of life. By “assorting for the flames” those dead letters which the lawyer imagines would bring “hope to the unhoping” and comfort for the “despairing,” Bartleby somehow lost faith. This conclusion suggests that the lawyer will carry on believing in something, however superficial, despite his contact with Bartleby.
In Bartleby Melville created a highly ambiguous symbol that cannot be reduced to a single meaning or interpretation. Melville thus places the reader in much the same position as the lawyer in the story. It is somewhat ironic that most critics of the story have disregarded the lawyer's interpretation of Bartleby as inaccurate while advancing their own as correct. It may be that the lawyer's interpretation is the only one that matters. When confronted with an experience that shakes his comfortable world view, the lawyer becomes anxious and fearful but finally regards Bartleby sentimentally as a fellow “son of Adam” who mysteriously lost his way. It is not unlikely that Melville had some sympathy for the lawyer's resolution of the matter. By finally leaving questions of ultimate meaning unresolved, the lawyer restores his own faith through a simple expression of empathy for Bartleby's suffering. It is not philosophically profound, but it is undeniably human.
Elliott, Mark. "An overview of 'Bartleby the Scrivener." Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.